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Backstory: From Shakespeare to Sudan

An English professor becomes an unlikely crusader on Darfur.

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If an issue like African famine and strife was ever ready for American prime time, it was not in early 1999 when headlines and late-night punch lines were consumed with Bill Clinton's impeachment and the NATO air war in Kosovo. The American attention span – as measured by talk shows, op-ed pages, and the nascent blogging scene – was booked.

So it seemed an oddly naive time for Eric Reeves, a renaissance scholar (as in Shakespeare and Milton), to start sending distress signals about Sudan (as in perennial ground zero of African ills) from his ivory tower at an elite women's college in the Berkshires. Here was a virtual unknown in diplomatic and humanitarian circles suddenly trying to elbow his way to the table of world conversation.

It was an "overwhelming experience of rejection," recalls the professor, who at the time had never set foot on the African continent but was peddling op-eds to major newspapers about Sudan's struggles with famine, ethnic violence, civil war, and oil intrigue.

The understandable, if cynical, question shadowing his dogged effort was: Who is this guy, and how did he get from Shakespeare to Sudan? Did he throw a dart at a map? "This guy," it turned out, was a formidable new brand of citizen activist. Empowered by the modern bullhorn of the Internet and uncommon moral fortitude, this English professor did find a seat at the table of world conversation – and an influential one at that.

If the Bush administration calls the Darfur crisis in western Sudan "genocide," if those green "Not on our watch" banners cropping up around the nation prick your conscience, and if Hollywood stars drop in on the issue, it's due in no small part to the work of the relentless Smith College professor with a laptop and a thick hide. "As a one-man nongovernmental organization, he has done more than any other individual or group I know of to keep the crisis in Darfur on the agenda of political leaders and the public," says Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights.

In the past seven years, Reeves has published hundreds of tart essays. His signature weekly analytical blog is read religiously by hundreds of policymakers involved with Sudan, and Congress has called him to testify several times.


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